I’ve been wallowing in a plethora of truly awesome reads lately, thanks to Scott Burkett of GGR-Reviews who always finds something new, exciting and challenging for me to sink my teeth into. Even the hated Kindle Unlimited has coughed up a couple worthies, though the level of dross continues to escalate, seemingly without an end in sight (another time, another blog).
For now, I list by author, for the simple reason when I find an author I like, I tend to plow through their entire catalog just for the sheer joy of it—you know how that is, you binge viewers of TV series like Black Sails and Downton Abbey.
So, in no particular order…
Joe’s work runs the gamut from belly-clutching/face hurting funny to poignant and heartwarming, drawing from his stage experience to present slices of life and those elemental truths about what it means to live, love and laugh through life’s little foibles.
I read the first two of his new Cozzi Cove Series: Bouncing Back and the upcoming Moving Forward (review coming soon). What I especially love about this series are the themes of dealing with loss and the subtext of love winning against all odds, but it’s the characters who light the stage with authenticity, their carefully crafted stories told as vignettes and the entire production graced with charm and skilled craftsmanship.
If you haven’t discovered this author, now is a perfect time to do so. His award-winning Nicky and Noah Series is a great place to start, as are his slightly raunchy/eyebrow raising re-imaginings of beloved fairy tales (The Naked Prince and Other Tales from Fairyland).
But be forewarned: you might laugh like a loon, but keep a box of tissues handy, too.
This was a new author to me. Fantasy isn’t my thing, mostly because so much of it is fiddly storytelling with emphasis on details offered in lieu of a real plot or character development. Not so with Tempest which is world building as it should be, engaging all the senses without needless distractions. I fell in love with the characters from the get-go, their trials were real, their strengths and weaknesses brought depth and meaning to their struggles and their journey of discovery was told with classic elegance and style. If you like fantasy and gay literary fiction, I think Tempest will admirably suit.
I am a HUGE fan of sports romances (MF or MM) so when I had a chance to read and review E.E. Gray’s new series, Olympic Passions, with a focus on (be still my heart!) gymnastics, I could hardly wait to dig in. Book 1 in the series is Vaulted with Book 2, Tumbled coming soon.
I had some issues with the likeability of the main characters (real issues, lemme tell ya), a few niggling plot point complaints, but overall the authenticity and attention to detail really elevated this story and held my attention despite my misgivings.
All of that was laid to rest with Tumbled (and I can’t tell you more other than to say it’s on my highly recommended list, but ya gotta read book 1 first—it is what it is).
For fans of historical fiction and romance, Ava March’s London Legal series is hard to beat. I started out with book 3 Convincing the Secretary (it was fine, not quite standalone but no problem figuring out what was going on). I’ve since read Convincing Arthur and Convincing Leopold, and in all cases I delighted in intelligent writing, finely honed characterizations, authentic historic details—including dialog (no modernisms to spoil the atmosphere!)—and some panty-wetting sexual restraint that made foreplay sweat-on-brow intense. These all pushed my highly recommended buttons.
I don’t often offer up a purely literary work of fiction, mostly because so many are pretentious and suitable more for deconstruction in Eng. Lit. 501 than for reading for pleasure. In a word, far too many are “unreadable.”
Yes, I did just say that.
What Belong to You is a debut novel capturing a microcosm of alienation and self-indulgence that takes place in post-Soviet Bulgaria, featuring an unnamed narrator and the character of Mitka around whom events transpire and spin in and out of control. Mitka is, in fact, the only one for whom the author deigns to identify completely—by appellation, by motivation, by circumstance, and by coincidence as the fulcrum upon which teeters an incisive deconstruction of a society and culture in disarray.
It’s an intimate portrait, not of being gay, but rather of being flotsam in a society that devalues the individual in favor of the collective, while at the same time turning a blind eye toward all self-destructive behaviors and the dysfunction it brings to every level of intimacy and social interaction.
Mitka is at once naive, cunning, manipulative, sorrowful and childlike. Why he captures the particular attention of the American narrator is never entirely clear (especially to the narrator), but obsession isn’t always straightforward, and saying the heart wants what it wants barely touches the surface of how their relationship evolves from the tawdry hook-ups in dicey restrooms to a level of obligation we’d be hard pressed to explain to other Americans but is, in fact, the norm in that social milieu.
Yes, being gay in Bulgaria (or anywhere in the Eastern Bloc) carries the same penalties we see and hear about in current day Russia, but here it takes on an import that goes beyond the state and strikes at the heart of how we define our inner selves in a power vacuum where consequences move beyond the abstract and strike hard at what it means to be human.
Written in a semi-autobiographical or memoirist style, there is a breathless, hasty quality to the writing. The sentences tend to run on, with complicated, sometimes flowery phrasing, as if the author/narrator wishes to record with digital precision each detail in all its particulars. It is a camera on a world foreign to us, set to record 24/7, without benefit of a seasoned traveler’s incisive parsing of what is important, what is mundane. As if it’s all so important that none of it is. Culture shock on speed, colored in with the pencils of self-doubt and fear, with untempered libido and a sense of bad boy naughtiness, of careless disregard for everything and everyone. Everyone, except Mitka.
The narrator’s inner space mirrors his outer world: the crumbling infrastructure, the blind acceptance of fate and disregard for all but one’s own interests, the accommodation of living in fear with the ever-present danger of living up to one’s own expectations. Mitka is the ultimate foil around which the narrator justifies his failures by elevating compassion and self-indulgence into an art form
This is a tough read, I kid you not. There is zero dialog, but rather clever artifices that segue into facsimiles of speech immersing and imbuing the words with emotive content without being told via the forms of punctuation and author intrusion how to see, hear, feel, or intuit what the narrator feeds you, stream of consciousness style.
It was an enviable feat, how the narrator’s voice became the perfect reflection of the object of his desire. After a while, you forgot he was the filter through whom you come to know Mitka, and accepted the transparency afforded by elemental truths and the stark realities imposed by conditions outside all their control.
This book requires a different mindset about narrative flow, but if you are willing to give it a chance—to try on the rhythm and cadence of a world in dissolution, dragging down its denizens to the lowest common denominator—you will be rewarded with an insightful, stark and terrifying exploration of psyches in transition.
This is a powerful and dismaying exploration of a culture dying under the weight of ennui and cultural conditioning, of poverty and greed. It bares the ugliness of relationships as commerce and what it means to abandon all hope. The narrator may be gay, but it is not what defines his existence—rather it merely forms a piece of the whole man, and it is to that whole we must turn our attention when we wish to truly understand what makes someone tick.
When I started What Belongs to You, it was with a sense of required reading—you know the type—but then it morphed into a genuine appreciation and respect for the author because he opened these jaded eyes to new forms of expression and new ways to develop insights into what constitutes this thing we call our essential identity.
I may never know the name of the narrator but I would know him, intimately, were I to meet him by chance. That, fellow readers, is damn good storytelling.
If you’d like an additional perspective on the author and another critique of What Belongs to You, Alex Clark’s article is a good place to start.